Disclaimer: Views expressed in this commentary are those of the authors, one of whom is a staff member of International IDEA. This commentary is independent of specific national or political interests. Views expressed do not necessarily represent the institutional position of International IDEA, its Board of Advisers or its Council of Member States.
Democracy versus autocracy. What if the oft-repeated question as to which of the two systems is more efficient in combating the coronavirus pandemic is the wrong one to ask? By asking such a question, democracy practitioners and promoters may well give cause to autocratic regimes to claim that their system is better. This is the last thing we need.
It is understandable that there are already studies and articles assessing the effectiveness of democracies in combating the coronavirus pandemic. The declaration of states of emergency, or the temporary curtailment of civil liberties, seem to be unfortunate—albeit often necessary—measures against this disease. Studies and articles also assess how autocratic regimes are tackling the crisis, subsequently making comparisons along political systems. Autocratic regimes have the comparative edge of not needing to worry about civil liberties because often there are no such liberties to consider. However, there is something asymmetrical about this comparison, and the result may not bode well for democracies.
We, as democracy practitioners and promoters, are inadvertently drawn towards a debate that often rests on an unfair and faulty premise. As seen from countless articles and discussions currently, that premise asks a basic question: which political system is better at tackling the pandemic, democracies or autocracies? But the way the question is formulated is simplistic and unjust, because it immediately begets a follow-up question: which system is better, democracies or autocracies? Granted, when such comparative analyses are drawn, their authors might not have had this ultimate question in mind. However, in an age of spin and burgeoning populism, it is easily conceivable that the question, as simplistic and misleading as it may be, will be formulated exactly like that: based on the pandemic results, which regime is better—democracies or autocracies?
The underlying worry here is that if data shows that an autocracy is somehow better at tackling the pandemic, then there will be people ready to jump to the conclusion that autocracies in general are better systems of governance. And even if one finds that in fact democracies are better at tackling the pandemic, there are always going to be claims that refute those findings from the ‘autocratic side’. This race of who is better is tricky and might easily lead one towards a path of constantly grappling to defend a certain viewpoint. Before we know it, we are placed in a perpetual position of defence, grappling to defend democracy’s raison d’être.
The question as it stands may be framed unjustly for democracy supporters and in favour of those who will leave no stone unturned to come up with positive findings for autocratic regimes. According to some news reports, China has reportedly done well at keeping the numbers of infections down. We have even read reports that in several post-Soviet countries, such as Belarus, the pandemic is tightly under control. By contrast, we are familiar with the tragic consequences of the pandemic in countries such the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, and the United States. But there are many democracies that have been successful against this pandemic, including New Zealand, Canada and Norway.
Asking the real and tougher question
The question of comparison is unfair because we should not have to choose between combating a crisis with an iron fist versus one that yields to democratic checks and balances.
The question of the impact of democracy on the pandemic should be turned on its head. We should be exploring the impact felt upon democracy as a result of the unprecedented and multifaceted threats deriving from the pandemic crisis.
This is not a choice between an often opaque system, and where there is lack of transparency and disregard for human rights, versus one that adheres to a democratic system of governance. We should start from the premise that the above binary question (which one is better, democracy or autocracy?) invites us into a trap, and therefore is invalid as we already know the answer to that question. What we need to emphasize is the strength, the resilience of (liberal) democracies in preserving and maintaining the rule of law, parliamentary oversight, human rights, civil liberties in the face of the pandemic.
The bottom line is that there may be a myriad of reasons for the poor response to the pandemic: a sloppy bureaucracy, lack of inter-departmental coordination, lack of experience dealing with a health crisis of this magnitude. This may be an issue of governance, preparedness and organisational setup. Democracy attributes such as adherence to human rights and civil liberties are certainly not causes—how can they be?
Living in a democratic system is not a liability in this fight against the pandemic. It is an opportunity to strengthen its resilience. Therefore, in this debate, we need to stress the enlightening values of social justice, trust, transparency, inclusion and how they feed into overall public health. The COVID-19 pandemic is just one part of this. And yes, an autocratic system may have kept the pandemic numbers down up to now, but at what cost to the overall sum of public health? How healthy is a society that lives in a police state, that is not free to express itself, that is subjugated?